Newly released figures have shown a sharp fall in the number of divorces in England and Wales during 2018, with the lowest number recorded since 1971.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that there was a total of 90,871 divorces of heterosexual partners in 2018, representing a drop of 10.6% compared with the previous year.
The figures, which do not account for dissolutions of civil partnerships, showed that the average length of time after which a marriage ended in divorce was 12 and a half years, with unreasonable behaviour was cited as the most common reason in all divorces in 2018.
So, what’s going on? Are couples getting on better all of a sudden? Or are there other factors involved?
One factor that is thought to have significantly contributed to the 2018 figures is a backlog of cases from 2017. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have indicated that due to a larger number of cases processed during 2018, the divorce figures for the year may appear lower.
Notwithstanding this, there has been a clear pattern developing over recent years, with a slow but steady decline in the number of heterosexual couples divorcing. For example, ONS figures show that the percentage of couples getting divorced after five years in 1998 was 10.4%, reducing to 7.8% by 2008 and only 5.9% by 2013.
Whilst on the surface, this would seem to indicate a positive change and a move towards greater longevity of marriages, a wider look at the situation, and in particular the number of marriages being entered into in the first place, raises an alternative view.
Marriage statistics from the latest year on record – 2015 – show the marriage rates for opposite-sex couples were the lowest on record, with 21.7 marriages per thousand unmarried men and 19.8 marriages per thousand unmarried women.
On the other hand, data from the ONS shows that the number of cohabiting couple families is growing faster than married couple families. Now the second largest family type in the UK, the proportion of cohabiting couples has increased from 15.3% to 17.9%.
In addition to cohabitation, any couple – either same sex or heterosexual – wanting to formalise their relationship in the eyes of the law now has the alternative of entering a civil partnership.
It is interesting that in a converse pattern to opposite sex divorces, the number of divorces among same-sex couples has increased over the same period, rising from 338 in 2017 to 428 in 2018. But since divorce records for same-sex couples only started in 2015, the increase in divorce rates here is likely to simply be a reflection of the increasing proportion of same-sex families.
So, what conclusions should we draw from all of these statistics? Perhaps rather than looking at these latest ONS statistics on divorce in isolation, we should perhaps be looking at them as a further shift in the overall dynamics of family life in the UK. The make-up of families is becoming increasingly diverse…where there was once only one option of legalising a relationship, and only opposite sex couples having the opportunity to do so, there are now several options – most significantly, choosing to live outside the institution of marriage and simply cohabit with a partner. With this type of family being so prevalent, it is surely time that the law caught up and made provisions to protect the rights of cohabitees.
Anthony Jones is a Director, Head of Family and is a Resolution Accredited Specialist.
For more information, please contact him on 0161 641 4555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org